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Background for the Question

A common understanding is that translating poetry from one language to another is essentially impossible to accomplish without much compromise. The current Wikipedia article (as of 9/24/2016) on Untranslatability states of poetry:

The two areas which most nearly approach total untranslatability are poetry and puns; poetry is difficult to translate because of its reliance on the sounds (for example, rhymes) and rhythms of the source language;

And the famous statement of Robert Frost is quoted in the Wikiquote article on Poetry:

I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation ... Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959); often quoted as "Poetry is what gets lost in translation".

Generally speaking, the problem is either that the meaning is retained, but rhyme and rhythm lost, or an attempt to maintain the latter compromises the former.

Now in Tolkien's works, the English of our text often has the rhyme and rhythm, which implies the meaning is probably not retained well. If this were true for one instance, that might be explained. But instead, the rhyme and rhythm happens regularly, and from various languages, many times actually representing two levels of translation, since the Common Speech is not English.

Examples

For purposes here, I've just taken a short sampling from three languages in The Two Towers, but similar things could be stated of other portions.

Common Speech (apparently) to English ("The Departure of Boromir", The Two Towers, first four verses only as a representative example)

Through Rohan over fen and field where the long grass grows
The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes.
'What news from the West, O wandering wind, do you bring to me tonight?
Have you seen Boromir the Tall by moon or by starlight?

Analysis: There is two forms of rhyming at the ends of these verses, alliteration of 'f' and 'w', with a sophisticated rhythm apparent in verse 2 and 3 with the 'w' sound where it forms a symmetrical pattern with the other words:

W W - W - - - W - - W - - - W - W W

Note that if one looked at the rest of the verses in that passage, other rhyme and rhythm points could easily be noted.

(Ancient) Elvish to Common Speech to English ("Treebeard", The Two Towers, first six verses; that it is Elvish comes from Treebeard's testimony after the verses):

Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four; the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses:

Analysis: There is a lot going on in this short section, so much it made no sense to bold the words, as most would be.

  1. There is a complicated alliteration in the first two verses of 'L' and 'F' respectively, as it also includes a sophisticated parallel rhythm between the lines (using the 2nd and 3rd words to match sounds also), and then a rhyme of the last word (here represented by an X; which rhyme also matches lines 4-6 of the other free peoples than the Elves who made the "old lists"):

    L n t L - L X
    F n t F - F X

  2. Lines 4-6 each have an alliteration of the 1st and 3rd word, and then lines 4 and 6 match the same alliteration with the 4th word, the break occurring in line 5 with the Ents (since "Ent" and "old" are not alliterated), which is who the lists were made for by the elves. So the patterns in these verses are (still with X showing the continued rhyme from verses 1 and 2):

    D t D, D - - X
    E t E, - - X
    M t M, M - X

  3. The 3rd line about the first of the free peoples, the Elves, is the most unique in form, yet it has an alliterative scheme of its first and last words ("el"), while its 3rd word ("all") rhymes with the 3rd word ("mortal") of the fourth of the four peoples, Men (which, speculatively, is interesting, since the Elves can choose to become mortal, similar to men, and procreate with men).

The later song from the Elves about the Entwives has just as much sophistication of rhyme, alliteration, etc.

Language of Rohirrim to Common Speech to English ("The King of the Golden Hall", The Two Towers, all verses):

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow:
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?

Analysis: There is a large amount of apparently intentional alliteration of the letter 'h' in these verses, and then two forms of rhyming at the ends of the verses.

The Question

So from an out-of-universe explanation, it is clear Tolkien intended to showcase good (English) poetry in his books and also to give meaning to those. That is, obviously the verses above were written with the meaning Tolkien wanted with the rhyme and rhythm working in the English language.

But what I want to know is if Tolkien, in any of his writings, ever gave an in-universe explanation on how those poems and songs could come to be translated into the Common Speech (in the case of from Elvish or Rohirrim) and from that, into English, with both the meaning and the form (rhyme, rhythm, etc.) so well intact?

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I don't believe Tolkien gave an explanation of how the poems could have been translated with both meaning and poetic quality intact. I seem to remember a self-deprecating comment to the effect that he was sure they both suffered, but I haven't been able to find it.

Out of universe, the English translations must surely have conveyed the meaning he intended, and he presumably tried to ensure the poetic quality was high.

Perhaps it would be useful to compare a translation to its "original" language (with both forms written as poetry rather than one as poetry and the other as a literal translation).

When Sam faces Shelob, he recites a version of the prayer to Elbereth (Varda)

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sı´ di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos!

The Lord of the Rings: Book IV, Chapter 10 - The Choices of Master Samwise

The literal translation of this is

O Elbereth Starkindler,
from heaven gazing afar,
to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!
O look towards me, Everwhite!

However, there is a poetic translation of this that I believe was written by Tolkien (possibly for Donald Swann's The Road Goes Ever On) and which I memorised long ago. Unfortunately, I can't find a link to the text of the translation.

Oh Queen who kindled star on star.
White-robed from heaven gazing far.
Though here I stand in dread of death
I cry, "Oh guard me, Elbereth!"

As you see, the poetic translation conveys a very similar meaning, and it retains the rhyming scheme and general rhythm of the Sindarin version.

  • Here is a link that discusses the passage you give: folk.uib.no/hnohf/elbereth.htm and thank you for that, as it is illustrative of some of the issues (even if not fully able to show how it is that English ended up rhyming so well through multiple translations). – ScottS Sep 26 '16 at 15:50
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Translation to Westron

There's some hand-waving in the book about how translation of songs into the Common Tongue is difficult; for example, after singing a portion of the Ley of Leithian, Aragorn remarks (bold is my emphasis, italic from the text):

'That is a song,' he said, 'in the mode that is called ann-thennath among the Elves, but is hard to render in our Common Speech, and this is but a rough echo of it.

Fellowship of the Ring Book I Chapter 11: "A Knife in the Dark"

Or before reciting the verse of Eorl (emphasis mine):

'It runs thus in the Common Speech,' said Aragorn, 'as near as I can make it.

The Two Towers Book III Chapter 6: "The King of the Golden Hall"

The clear implication, then, is that translation isn't precise; although the Westron version may do a good job of retaining some measure of both the sense and metre, there are sacrifices being made that we're not seeing.

Translation into English

As far as I can tell, he never discusses this angle; an omission that seems somewhat glaring to me, but there we are.

He does note on occasion that he's willing to approximate his translations; for instance:

[I]n any case, elf, gnome, goblin, dwarf are only approximate translations of the Old Elvish names for beings of not quite the same kinds and functions.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 25: To the Editor of 'The Observer'. 1938

'Elves' is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 144: To Naomi Mitchison. April 1954

My difficulty has been that, since I have tried to present a kind of legendary and history of a 'forgotten epoch', all the specific terms were in a foreign language, and no precise equivalents exist in English.

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 151: To Hugh Brogan. September 1954

So if we're forced to justify it, I suppose we have to fall back on the same hand-waving as the translations to Westron: Tolkien took some liberties with the translation, which we don't see, in order to ensure the flow of words.

  • I knew there were some points within the books themselves where the characters note the difficulty of translation, so thanks for tracking some of those down. I do agree with the conclusion that "some liberties" is really the only way to "explain" the English rhyme from poems and songs that (fictionally) arose from other languages. – ScottS Sep 26 '16 at 15:54

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